Embedded Sensors & Cloud Apps: What about the Connection?

March 29, 2019 Curt Schwaderer, Technology Editor

IoT is a cross-discipline mash-up of embedded and sensor technologies, cloud and IT applications, with network connectivity in-between. The vast majority of the innovation around IoT has been related to sensors, embedded devices, and cloud applications. The connectivity between them has been largely ignored and worse yet, assumed the status quo in networking is OK for IoT environments. This has resulted in significant roadblocks and stymied innovation around IoT end-to-end prototyping and productivity.

Today we’ll be looking at security, connectivity, and scalability aspects and a company that is focusing on solving these connectivity challenges to remove the roadblocks going from concept to production.

The Connectivity Challenge

There are many innovative IoT systems deployed either as prototypes or site-specific systems. These systems tend to use localized connectivity options like Wi-Fi. But this can limit the full value of the IoT system, especially for roaming IoT devices.

Unfortunately geographical reach isn’t the only challenge. Signing up for a mobile network service on an IoT scale and ensuring coverage required to implement the IoT system is incredibly complex – in fact, much of it is pioneering new territory since the IoT paradigm is far different than smart phone service.

Soracom is a company focused on providing a cellular connectivity platform for IoT and M2M using the cloud. The connectivity platform is aimed at providing all the features and capabilities needed from the connectivity environment to remove roadblocks and enable globally scalable IoT systems.

What is a Connectivity Platform for IoT?

Kenta Yasukawa, Soracom co-founder and CTO was working at AWS when the concept of connectivity focused IoT platform was formed.

“One night we were having a beer and started discussing what it would take to build a cloud connectivity platform on top of Amazon Web Service (AWS). We thought we could fill the security, connectivity, and scalability gaps that we were seeing with a large number of IoT systems and decided to create Soracom.”

While providing global connectivity to IoT devices is a fundamental feature, the scope of the IoT system goes well beyond that. The Soracom architecture starts by having mobile network Packet Gateway (PGW) and Gateway GPRS Support Node (GGSN) elements that reside within AWS. A SIM card is used for the IoT gateway or device authentication just like a smart phone. So for strictly the connectivity aspect, Soracom is much like a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO). The local network operator provides the radio access network (RAN) and Service Gateway (SGW) and the SGW connects to the Soracom PGW/GGSN located in AWS. Soracom worries about roaming agreements, reach, and network security and scalability aspects.

Zakk Alumbaugh, Soracom Solutions Architect, elaborated, “The IoT connectivity platform creates an experience that can be used from IoT hobbyist to commercial developer. We use a tailor-built SIM card that can roam globally where we have put in place all the roaming agreements to provide global reach. Once connected, there is a portfolio of services that address additional aspects of connectivity.” Some of those aspects involve addressing the following:

How do I reach my device by SSH or other means for troubleshooting  and diagnostics?

How do I manage my IoT environment and collect statistics that can be displayed?

How do I implement the proper security with encrypted traffic flow and authentication?

The connectivity platform provides device access through a variety of familiar methods like SSH. SIM chips provide credentials and secure communications between endpoints. This is a particularly attractive feature since IoT systems need hundreds or thousands of credentials and they need to be created in a secure way. The SIM card provides this capability.

Soracom’s Lagoon service provides a customizable Grafana based dashboard environment for easy monitoring of network and device operations.

Cellular IoT Challenge and IoT Fund

Soracom has seen a lot of great IoT ideas and they are keen on facilitating deployment of these ideas. “There are a lot of innovative ideas out there and many are already being developed on our platform,” Kenta said. “Some of these include putting sensors on cows and using a smart phone app to monitor herd behavior, health, and location which removes a lot of the time-consuming daily activities involved. We wanted to be proactive, so we created the Cellular IoT Challenge.”

The challenge involves sending a description of your idea for evaluation. If it’s selected, the submitter will receive an IoT starter kit to help with addressing the connectivity issues relating to the deployment of the IoT solution.

Soracom is also providing a service called “IoT Accelerator” – this is a technical consulting and credit based support for their platform fee so people with prototype solutions that want to look into productization can get started quickly. This is typically for the seed-stage start-ups that need some knowledge gaps filled and a cost-effective way to mature their solution.

Finally, the IoT Fund is a strategic investment that enables emerging start-ups to expand operations and services.

These options that accompany the IoT connectivity platform go a long way to facilitate from learning curve, equipment access, and cost-effective progression perspectives.

Summary

There has been a lot of information around the sensor and cloud application ends of the IoT spectrum. But the connectivity and associated services in the middle have been largely ignored until now.

“The IoT connectivity solution is designed to make it easy to connect embedded devices to the cloud. We think this will open the door to providing lots of related services important to IoT,” Kenta said. “Cloud integration and broad-reach connectivity in-between is a big step. Don’t assume you have to go it alone. Partnerships are important at this stage and people putting together IoT systems should expect more. Don’t settle for just a connection from your connectivity platform. Make sure it provides all the services that will enable proper scaling, security, and cost model.”

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